Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan prepares for an interview in New York City. Photo: Reuters / Brendan McDermid
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan prepares for an interview in New York City. Photo: Reuters / Brendan McDermid

At a time when the relations between Turkey and the European Union (EU) have hit an all time low, with the European Parliament voting in favor of freezing accession talks with Ankara, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s remarks that Turkey “should not be fixated on the idea of joining the EU” and consider “other opportunities such as the Shanghai Five” have reignited the debate whether Turkey is breaking away from the liberal West and moving towards the authoritarian East.

Not only is this debate not new, it is actually going on since at least the late 18th century beginnings of Ottoman modernization, it also often misses the point that Turkey can be, and in fact is, a part of both the West and the East at the same time. This is not a choice; rather a condition determined by Turkey’s geographical position, history, economy, cultural currents, and the amalgam of values its eighty million strong population is adhering to.

Turks’ disappointment with its EU accession process, which has been going on with little progress since 1963, is real and profound. It is, however, also true, that although full membership is nowhere in sight for Turkey, the EU anchor has significantly contributed to Turkey’s development, in terms of democratization, economic progress, cultural dialogue and exchange. Giving up these gains would do no good for Turkey, but at the same time Turkey also feels the need to improve its options and leverage, and avoid excessive dependence on any one actor politically and economically. Greater and more formal engagement with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and its member countries makes sense in this respect, and it does not necessarily mean breaking ties with Europe.

Turkey does not have to choose between Brussels and Shanghai, as it can reach out to both. This is also not about choosing material benefits over values, because Turkey has economic interests and shared values with both sides. What Turkey has to do is to figure out how to maintain favorable relations with both the West and the East, within the boundaries determined by the country’s capacities, in an optimal way without alienating old friends while making new ones. Under current circumstances, this requires two tasks: First, to determine what real value there is for Turkey in greater engagement with the SCO through full membership or in any other format. Second, to decide what kind of an institutional framework would be the best for furthering relations with the EU, if full membership is not a realistic target anymore.

Turkey is already a dialogue partner of SCO since 2012, and Ankara’s intention to be more active in the organization, if possible through full membership, cannot be interpreted only as a signal to the West, because there are also expected material gains for Turkey in doing so. Neither of the heavyweights of SCO has lost any time in making clear in an explicit way that Turkey should see benefits in their club. After Erdoğan’s statements in favor of SCO, both Beijing and China have immediately given the green light for Turkey’s membership, and more importantly, the governing body of the organization has unanimously elected Turkey as the chair of the SCO Energy Club in 2017; the first time that a non-full member country is elected to chair the organization’s energy coordination mechanism that brings together the some of the world’s largest hydrocarbon consumers and producers.

Over the past few years, despite all the political ups and downs, Turkey has been conducting active energy diplomacy with both China and Russia, in nuclear, solar and coal power with the former, and gas pipelines with the latter. The value of chairing SCO’s energy club for Turkey in this respect cannot be denied. In the meantime, Russia and China are making efforts to integrate their mutual projects in the Eurasian continent, such as Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union, China’s One Belt, One Road Project and also the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, where both Russia and Turkey are already founding members.

All these projects aim to increase the economic potential on an axis between the eastern coast of China and the frontiers of Eastern Europe, and the target regions they cover geographically overlap to a large extent. In May 2015, when Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping shook hands in the Kremlin and declared that “the integration of the Eurasian Economic Union and Silk Road projects means reaching a new level of partnership (between the two countries) and actually implies a common economic space on the continent,” their motivation was to secure mutual gains by making sure that the two countries’ projects in Eurasia supplemented each other establishing a balanced economic structure, instead of having competing projects, which would most likely lead to sub-optimal or even destructive outcomes. What Putin and Xi called a “common economic space” is vital for them at a time when Russia is facing economic dire straits due to Western sanctions and low hydrocarbon prices, and China is making efforts to keep its economic slowdown under control.

It is also important for the Central Asian countries whose future lie in how well they can keep both Russia and China involved at the same time; and it matters for Turkey too, not only because of energy-related issues, but also, and perhaps more importantly, because Russia and Central Asian countries are major destinations for Turkish products, investments and construction services. At a time when Turkey’s economic links to Middle East, North Africa and Gulf Markets are blocked to due to civil wars, terrorism and political problems, the Eurasian connection is more vital than ever for Turkey’s economy.

Europe is still Turkey’s major economic partner. According to 2015 data from the Turkish Statistics Institute, EU countries absorbed 44.4 percent of Turkey’s annual exports, and when the non-EU countries are included the share of Europe in Turkey’s exports rises to 54.3 percent. In contrast, SCO countries are sources of imports for Turkey, with Russia and China alone accounting for 21.8 percent of Turkey’s imports. Greater engagement with or even full membership in SCO will not lead to a reversal of this picture; Europe will not lose its status as the main export destination partner over night. Trade with Europe is the lifeline of Turkish economy, but SCO can offer other advantages for Turkey, most importantly as a formal, institutional base through which Turkey can improve its relations with member countries at the bilateral level, and become an integral part of the newly emerging economic structure in the Eurasian continent.

In addition to assessing what SCO can mean and what it can offer in concrete terms, Turkey also needs to revise its approach to the EU and decide, in mutual dialogue with European partners, what kind of a cooperation framework would be the best for furthering relations, if full membership is not deemed a realistic target anymore. Turkey needs the EU, and the EU needs Turkey. Both sides have benefited from this relationship, and severing the relationship would the worst decision that can be made. However it is also clear that blind insistence on linking the process solely to the objective of full membership does not bring much progress either. A new model of partnership can be designed for Turkey and Europe, which would be less painful to implement, still serving both sides’ interests, and not making Turkish citizens feel humiliated, as they do after 53 years of waiting for an outcome that does not materialize.

Turkey does not need to choose between the EU and SCO. Not only have these two entities two different structures, one being a supranational economic/political union, the other merely an instrument for bilateral and multilateral cooperation, but Turkey can also engage each of them more actively without alienating the other side. This is, however, easier said than done, and will require proactive yet careful diplomacy on Ankara’s behalf. In the meantime, the biggest mistake that the EU (and SCO) can do is to demand Turkey to pick sides.

Altay Atli

Dr Altay Atlı is an Istanbul-based academic, writer and consultant specializing in international political economy and international relations. Information on his work can be found in his personal web site: www.altayatli.com.